The Challenges of Education in the Marshall Islands

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SEATTLE — The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a North Pacific island chain with a population of over seventy thousand. And for those aged 25 and over, only 42.9 percent have completed high school. Compared to the United States where nine out of 10 adults have at least a GED or a high school diploma, education in the Marshall Islands faces unique challenges.

In a country roughly the size of Washington D.C., Marshallese citizens have a compulsory primary education system but few options for tertiary education. That means most children only complete the eighth grade.

The United States has a significant role founding and funding the formal education in the Marshall Islands. Nearly 160 years ago, the Boston Missionary Society established missionary schools which lasted prior to WWII.

Following the end of the war, the U.N. organized the Marshall Islands under the United Nations Trust Territory. By the 1950s, the U.S. Department of the Interior helped form the modern system for education in the Marshall Islands within a newly created Trust Territory Department of Education.

When the Republic of the Marshall Islands achieved independence in 1979, a self-governing Ministry of Education replaced the system under the U.N. Trust Territory.

The United States has a strategic interest in the Marshall Islands as part of its nuclear testing program. To secure these interests at the height of the Cold War, U.S. signed a Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands in exchange for U.S. protection and investment.

Developed in 1989, the U.S. funded Ten-Year Education Master Plan sought to improve and synchronize teacher training, targeted programs, expanded services with the development of a new Curriculum Framework.

A population boom in the 1980s placed a significant strain on the existing system of education in the Marshall Islands. Subsequently, an amended Compact of 2004 stipulated that an “emphasis should be placed on advancing a basic quality of the education system”. Under the amendment, the United States provides nearly $70 million annually to the Marshall Islands until 2023.

Since the 1990s, primary education enrollment rates have slightly increased (about six percent); however, the same period saw an enrollment decline of 12 percent for ages 15 through 24. The decline represents “important policy challenges” for the U.S. Department of the Interior who correlates the enrollment decline with an overall drop in literacy rates.

Higher education in the Marshall Islands consists of vocational and tertiary instruction primarily at only two institutions. Still, only nine percent of the population graduates from college.

The College of the Marshall Islands offers two associate degrees (sciences and liberal arts) and a variety of professional certificates. The regional University of the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands campus has bachelor’s degree programs and even a master’s degree in business administration.

Marshallese students also have opportunities to pursue an education elsewhere. They can travel to the United States without a visa to study and work. Marshallese citizens can also earn education entitlements by joining the U.S. military. Interestingly, they enlist at a rate higher than any state.

The College of the Marshall Islands also teaches adult education programs to allow students an opportunity to complete high school equivalency education. While these types of programs provide excellent scholastic investment opportunities, there is certainly room for growth in advanced education in the Marshall Islands.

Tim Devine

Photo: Flickr

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